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FEATURE Lewis Moody: 'This team is in a better place than we were in 2007.'

Lewis Moody: 'This team is in a better place than we were in 2007.'
9 months ago

Watch the World Cup from a corporate box? Or maybe the sofa? No thanks. Lewis Moody, never a fan of the route of least resistance, fancies something altogether less comfortable. The World Cup-winner will be back in the saddle during the tournament – literally – as he peddles through France raising money for charity.

The former England captain – who knows better than most about the difference between a red-hot World Cup campaign and a stone-cold omnishambles – will ride along a 1,000km route of First World War trenches before arriving in Lille for England’s final pool game, against Samoa.

It would be easy here to settle into a riff about England being stuck in the trenches, looking shellshocked, delivering repetitively clueless sorties in attack, and desperately casting around for meaningful generalship.

But instead, let’s talk of Moody’s poor legs. The Mad Dog’s pins will no doubt be wrecked by the time he rolls into the Stade Pierre Mauroy with his cycling companions on October 7. (His practice rides around the hills of Bath and Wiltshire, he fears, may not be of sufficient severity.) But what about England’s chances of qualifying for the knock-out stages? Will they be wrecked too?

Lewis Moody
Moody experienced the whole gamut of emotions across his three World Cups (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Moody, a veteran of three World Cup campaigns, including the 2003 triumph, senses that something is afoot in world rugby. A changing of the guard; an end to old certainties. He is expecting a surprise or two to be sprung by some outsiders, by the likes of Georgia, Japan or Fiji. And while there will be some of the traditional World Cup drubbings (New Zealand v Namibia, anyone? Australia v Portugal?), he foresees the unexpected. And England, he fears, could be on the receiving end.

The problem for England is that their World Cup campaign bears disquieting comparison with the route that Moody will be cycling during his quadricep-burning odyssey. With a wary intake of breath, Moody says he will be negotiating some pretty grim hills in the early days of his ride. Things then flatten out a bit. But the damage could already be done.

It all sounds a bit like England’s route through Pool D. The tough stuff – those fearful gradients, the hairpin bends – come early in the form of Argentina and then 2019 quarter-finalists Japan. An easier contest follows: Chile, a game which is likely to be the rugby equivalent of freewheeling downhill. Then there is Samoa, a match which England should win, but which could have all the unpredictability of a Tour de France stage on the cobbles. And the cobbles, as the French know, always claim a victim or two.

The arrogance of thinking that we will always get out of the group and make the knock-outs is a thing of the past. Japan, Fiji, Georgia – they are all pushing hard.

“There is something about the growth of the game and how strong other teams are now that’s changing the tournament,” says Moody, his manner as easy-going as it’s always been – a manner that was always at odds with his on-field ferocity and fearlessness. “The arrogance of thinking that we will always get out of the group and make the knock-outs is a thing of the past. Japan, Fiji, Georgia – they are all pushing hard.”

And England, he does not need to point out, have zero grounds for arrogance or anything approximating swagger. Their World Cup warm-up campaign did far more to cool the blood than get fans’ hearts pumping. With 12 tries conceded in four matches and an attack with all the vim and vigour of a morgue, they head into Saturday’s opener against the Pumas like late-summer roses wilting in an unseasonably stifling early September.

England Fiji
Moody hopes a England can draw a line in the sand after their historic loss to Fiji (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“The way results have been, the English rugby public is now much more realistic about our prospects to the point where we’re saying that if England get out of their pool then that’s great,” says the former Leicester and Bath flanker.

“All the stats I’ve seen for England are not good and it’s difficult to see a way forward. Compared with other teams we miss more tackles and our speed of ball at the ruck is slow. But we kick the ball away more than any other team. So it’s like a vicious circle. We’ve no ruck speed so we can’t bring dangerous players like Henry Arundell into the game, and when we haven’t got the ball we haven’t got the defence to keep the opposition out.

“England are kicking a lot and hoping to capitalise on the other team’s mistakes, but at the moment we’re just giving the ball away and then conceding points. The players maybe don’t enjoy playing like that. But many of them do it for clubs such as Leicester, so why can’t they work more effectively as a team?”

Moody doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Often, he speaks in questions. While some are an expression of uncertainty, others are rhetorical. Yet underlying them all is a residue of belief that, if England can somehow manufacture the right emotions, they could yet find a way to sneak far deeper into the competition than pure reason would suggest.

It’s just confused at the moment – and you can see the confusion before your eyes.

“How do England make the change? It boils down to the players having some sort of emotional response to where they’re at. They feel unsupported and that can lead to a siege mentality, and they’re not incapable of turning it around. Characters like Ellis Genge – fiery, passionate individuals – you want those characters to step up and say something. There is plenty of experience in the squad, just like we had in the 2007 World Cup. But it’s whether they feel they can stand up and say what they think needs to be said.

“Unless the senior players are delivering and there is a collective belief then it is all for nothing. In the warm-up games we didn’t see that collective belief in the direction they’re heading. It’s just confused at the moment – and you can see the confusion before your eyes.

“Is there an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality in the camp, with the older guard playing in a more established way and younger players hoping for something different and more flowing, a la Quins? There may be some discontent in camp.

“I’m not saying they should just chuck the ball around willy-nilly because that would end in disaster, but talented backs like Arundell and Marcus Smith need to be brought into the game.”

On November 22 this year, Moody and the rest of the 2003 World Cup-winning squad will be brought together for a 20-year reunion event at the Hammersmith Apollo. The halcyon days of England’s preparations for 2003 seem a sporting universe away from this campaign – although this year’s efforts may yet make for a tragi-comedy that the Apollo may wish to stage.

Lewis Moody
England’s World Cup warm-ups have been a far cry from what Moody experienced in 2003 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Moody also played a key role in the 2007 World Cup in France, before captaining England in New Zealand in 2011. England’s 2007 campaign was one of rugby’s great oddities: a dreadful team (by its own admission) which somehow went from being pulverised by South Africa in the group stages to being within a dodgy TMO call of beating the Boks in the final.

Moody says he and others were embarrassed to be associated with the 2007 side’s early performances. But embarrassment yielded a response of bloody-minded, simplified endeavour, which in turn yielded results. The current England squad, he suggests, should tap into their own embarrassment at losing to Fiji at Twickenham in their final warm-up game.

He is not calling for all-out insurrection within the England camp, or for a carbon-copy player revolt of the type that happened 16 years ago, but he argues that coaches and players alike must be catalysed into something fresh, both emotionally and tactically.

It was old school grit. We were determined to be better than we were. We would just focus on one thing. This England team needs to find their edge too, to focus on each game like it’s a knock-out game.

“What happened in 2007 shows that surprise turnarounds can be done; we were absolutely awful back then,” he recalls.

“Two weeks into the 2007 World Cup we spoke very openly and there was a degree of finger pointing, but it was done to change the situation and move forward. It meant heated debate at times. Embarrassment prompted us to change the situation.

“It wasn’t rude but it was an open conversation about where we as players wanted to go. It meant players and coaches coming together, and we moved away from what (head coach) Brian Ashton had wanted and to something simpler.

“Senior players spoke up, like Phil Vickery, Martin Corry and Lawrence Dallaglio, but younger players did too, such as Olly Barkley.

Martin Corry <a href=
Lawrence Dallaglio Phil Vickery” width=”1200″ height=”750″ /> This England team need to evoke the spirit of ’07 (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“It was old school grit. We were determined to be better than we were. We would just focus on one thing. This England team needs to find their edge too, to focus on each game like it’s a knock-out game. That’s the mentality they need. If they can get out of the group then anything is possible, and they should use all the ‘England are on an early plane home’ stuff as ammunition.

“This team is in a better place than we were in 2007. There are quality players who have proved they can deliver week in, week out in the Premiership. But for whatever reason they are not unified at the moment so that they are able to deliver.

“This current team can steal a lead on where we were in 2007. I hope that loss to Fiji serves as a catalyst, for Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield to perhaps realise this isn’t working. In his body language after the Fiji loss, Kevin looked down and frustrated and you hope it elicits positive change. Things need to be confronted, not in a rude way but in order to move forward.”

But if there is to be no logic-defying fairytale resurrection by England, then Moody hopes one of his great Six Nations rivals can do a job on the southern hemisphere.

It would be great to have another Northern Hemisphere side stopping the Southern Hemisphere dominance.

It half-pains him to say it, but Moody – so often a scythe to the legs of French half-backs – is absorbed by France’s current fusion of panache and pragmatism.

“It’s wonderful to have France, Ireland and Scotland performing so well. It feels like rugby has taken a bit of a beating in recent years, with Premiership teams falling away and concussion, but the game to watch is probably the most exciting it’s ever been. I hope it’s Ireland or France contesting a final. It would be great to have another Northern Hemisphere side stopping the Southern Hemisphere dominance.

“I love the idea of France winning a World Cup, just as I love what Andy Farrell has done at Ireland. I’m having to park my Englishness.”

To support the Lewis Moody Foundation’s aim of raising £50,000 for the Brain Tumour Charity by cycling the Western Front Way, visit https://www.justgiving.com/page/lewis-moody-1692698866706

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